Steve Nieve of Elvis Costello and the Atractions & Imposters Talks Old, New & Vox (INTERVIEW)

Ok, so here’s the deal. You’re already in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, you’ve played in a band with one of the most innovative singer-songwriters in the modern world, you’ve toured every nook and cranny on Earth, you’ve recorded with everyone from David Bowie to Mick Jagger and you’re currently living in a beautiful part of France. What do you do now? You record an album of your own, of course, featuring guests that have been a part of your musical life in one way or another over the past thirty-plus years.

Steve Nieve, longtime keyboard player for Elvis Costello & The Attractions, adds another stellar recording to his list of credits via Together, an album featuring such artists as Costello, Sting, Laurie Anderson and Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook. It is a project that Nieve holds near and dear to his heart as he collaborated with not only some of the best in the business but ones he can legitimately call his friends. The first single is a lush, illuminating ballad sung with Sting, and written by Costello, called “You Lie Sweetly.” But don’t let the moodiness of this song fool you: Nieve has a wide-open palette and isn’t afraid to let his colors bloom, as witnessed on his energetic duet with Joe Sumner on “Up” that highlights the talent of Sting’s progeny; and the popalicious “Save The World” featuring Tall Ulyss.

If you noticed the bopping Nieve in many Costello videos, then the man on the other end of the phone line may seem like an imposter. He is well-spoken, quiet, very calm in nature and answers questions with a gentleman’s politeness. But don’t mistake his manners for lack of enthusiasm. Nieve is very excited about his new album, which was released on October 08, and he has flown to New York to promote it on American soil. “We got into America yesterday,” Nieve told me the day before Together’s official US release. “We’ve come to New York because we are planning on doing a kind of private get together with some of the people that contributed so brilliantly to the record and to celebrate the beginning of the launch of the record.”

What was the inspiration behind doing this record with these particular artists?

Well, there were two things. First of all, everyone that is on the record is all people that I’ve worked with at some time in my life before and they’ve all become friends. And also I wanted to work with some younger musicians. I worked with people like Tall Ulyss and Joe Sumner and Harper Simon, and I found that to be a very rewarding experience. The way they look at music is completely different from me. They see things from a different point of view and they taught me so many things. It’s been great. That’s been one of the aspects of the project that I’ve enjoyed the most, really.

Did you have list of who you wanted to work with or did the songs conjure up a name as you were writing them?

As I began to work on the project, I had begun to realize I needed to arrange the songs that I had and I needed to write songs that would work with the brilliant voices that I was planning on collaborating with. To try to arrange the songs to suit them the best it could and to make sure that everybody fitted together in a natural way and that the whole album could have a sort of cohesive feel about it. So that became like an exercise of style to achieve that and I think that was one of the things that made working on this project so interesting. And when I’ve listened to it recently, I think that everyone that is on it fits on the track that they ended up doing. They don’t sound out of place, you know.

steve nieve pub pic with sting 2013

One of the most invigorating songs is your collaboration with Sting’s son, Joe Sumner, on the song “Up.” What can you tell us about that particular song and working with Joe?

He’s been a real great discovery, Joe Sumner. I first met him when we worked together on a project called Welcome To The Voice, which we recorded originally with various people. Robert Wyatt played the part of the friend but when we came to do that live, Joe Sumner took that part and took part in the live version and he brought so much to it. Not only is he a fantastic singer but a great actor. So after that when I started working on this album, he was one of the people I really wanted to work with. He came over to Paris, he came there several times, and spent more time with me than some of the other people. So that was why he ended up singing on two tracks. Not only did he sing on them but he played bass for us. He’s very generous with his time in this project and I’m very happy because he’s going to come to New York and we will then see him when we go across the country to Los Angeles. He’s very involved and it’s great to work with him, he’s a great person to work with.

Do you see a similarity between him and his father?

I do, obviously. I think that it’s a rare thing that fathers are imparting their wisdom to their sons in this modern age but it must be difficult for Joe, I think, living with a father figure like that. But I would say that some of the very positive things about it are that Joe is very particular, he’s very meticulous about his music and he’s got an extremely strong attitude about him. All those things, I think, are Joe. But obviously, he has his father’s genes inside him.

How long did it take for you to do all the actual recording on your album, cause with that many artists, I’m sure it must have taken time to coordinate each artist to record their particular song.

The album was produced by Muriel Teodori and I without any time constraints or timetables. There was no label to answer to. We didn’t know when we started exactly how we wanted it to turn out.  We knew we had to collaborate slowly with each artist, and not rush anything. To find just the right moment to work on a song, we had to be patient, at the same time to react decisively and seize the moment. All the artists on the record were wonderful to work with. It was the best moment of each track when the song finally came to life. I have worked with all of them before Together and all of them are friends; that has given the record an extra cohesion, that strong bond between us all.

steve nieve 2013

You have a surprise song at the very end of this CD. Why did you slip that on there?

I always like it when you go to see a movie and something happens in the end credits. You know, you’re suddenly surprised by something, a little extra thing, so it’s supposed to be like the secret track. But in this digital age, it seems to be impossible to have secret tracks (laughs). They just don’t know how to do it. But the idea was that this track would surprise you if you left the CD on. So it’s not mentioned on the artwork or anything. But that track is actually a text by a famous French poet who wrote it when he was in prison and the prison was the Chatelet, which is now the opera theater, which is where we performed Welcome To The Voice. So it’s got a kind of strange link with everything.

How was it like working with Elvis on your project instead of the other way around?

Well, Elvis is an extraordinarily generous artist and I’ve worked on many of his projects. But he has always been very supportive of things that I’m doing. When I first made a solo record of songs it was called Mumu. I don’t know if you heard that album but when I made a showcase for it, he came over to Paris and was my guitarist for the evening. He’s a wonderful guitarist and it was great because on that record I had worked with Mark Ribot, who is a brilliant guitarist, but Elvis was definitely up to the job, I would say (laughs). So on this particular project, I love how he’s interpreted “Tender Moment.” Also, he wrote the lyrics to “You Lie Sweetly” that Sting sings. He’s a very important part of the project and very supportive of the project and it’s always a pleasure to work with him because he takes so many risks with his work. He’s willing and eager to try things that take him outside of his normal sort of comfort area, shall we say.


During your early days with Elvis, what song did he bring in that made your jaw just hit the floor because it was just so amazing?

Well, I cannot think of a song by Elvis that didn’t do that for me. They are all so incredibly interesting and unexpected musically and lyrically. Right up to the present time. I mean, look at “Dr. Watson” or “Song with Rose”, or Wise Up Ghost, which has me sampled all over it! If I was sentenced to be lobotomized and could only have one of his songs left in my memory, I think it would have to be “The Birds Will Still Be Singing.”

What was the music scene like in London when you were first discovering music and playing music for the first time?

I was at classical music college and at that time, I guess there were a lot of different kinds of music. Maybe there wasn’t as much as there is nowadays but I think we were all a community with each other, sort of shared our happiness about albums and things like that where nowadays it seems that it’s more kind of inside headphones. When I was, I don’t know, eighteen or nineteen, the punk rock movement started and that kind of shook everything up, I think, because it was like a bolt of good energy and at the same time, certain people really hated it. So I got caught up for a little bit in that moment and I wanted so much to be in a rock band and I went out of my way to get out of the classical line of education and managed to find myself in the Attractions. And that was pretty incredible. I don’t really know how that happened but there you go (laughs)

Early in your career, how did you incorporate your own personality into the keyboards and make this instrument so much a part of your individual sound?

Well, the instrument concerned is called a Vox organ and I didn’t realize it when I was younger, but when you get older you start to become interested in all the aspects of what you’re up to and the technical aspects. The strange thing about that organ is that it was manufactured in the suburb of London where I’d lived, just down the road, which is incredible. It’s sort of a unique sound that certain people have used but the fact is it was the only keyboard that I could afford to buy because at the time it was quite inexpensive. It was really heavy, a nightmare to carry it about, and I was just kind of stuck with it because it sort of fits into anything, really (laughs).

One time I did a session with David Bowie and Mick Jagger on a song called “Dancing In The Street.” We recorded the song and they said, “Does anyone have any idea of something extra we can do to it?” And I wanted to try and put the Vox organ on it. So I said, “I’ve got an idea for this Vox organ part. I’ll just go and get it.” And apparently when I went out of the room, Mick Jagger said, “That’s the sound that I hate the most in the world.” (laughs). But that’s ok. People have to have their own opinions but needless to say it didn’t end up on the track (laughs)


What are your thoughts on the instrument evolution for keyboards?

Well, I guess, you can try to replace the Vox organ with things that sound almost like it but they never sound quite like it because there’s something about it. The problem with it is that particular organ will only make that one sound whereas you buy a Nord and you can make thousands of different sounds and you can get a sound that is almost like a Vox organ. So you’ve got to really be into the whole idea of just having a Vox organ if you really wanted to go down that way. Plus now, they’re so expensive. They probably cost you more to buy the Vox organ than it would to buy the Nord (laughs). They’re just rare. They’re no longer made so they’re difficult to keep them working because they are constantly breaking down. I have a spare that’s just used for parts cause they don’t make the parts anymore.

As a keyboard player, what is the hardest thing about performing live and standing out?

I don’t think if you’re performing live, that’s what you’re doing. What I normally do is I accompany someone and I’m not the person who is in the front. I’m the person who is supporting the person in the front and that’s really what I’ve been doing for most of my life and that’s what I really enjoy doing. I think that is sort of an art form to accompany someone. A lot of musicians learn what they have to play and play exactly the same thing every night. I’m not a person like that. I tend to invent things as I go along. So when I’m accompanying someone live, I’m listening at what they’re doing and I can go with them and I try to follow them and to support them. I think that’s what I’m trying to do.

When I came to make this record, Together, I’m occupying a slightly different place and I’m trying some of the time to be the guy in front. And for me, that is a much more difficult proposition. My favorite thing to do is to be the accompanist because when you’re in that position in front, there’re so many other things you have to deal with and that you have to be responsible for. So I do enjoy putting myself in that position but I think I have to admit to myself that what I really like to do is to be the accompanist. And maybe that’s part of the reason why I decided to do this record the way I did, which is to share the front seat, if you like (laughs) because it’s not natural for me to be in that position. So I think the answer to the question is that I’m enjoying trying and learning about that but there are people like Elvis and Sting and Joe who are much, much better at that job than I am.

I really love singing but I don’t think I’m a singer. But there are certain artists that I like who are not really singers as well and there’s something about that which can be different and interesting to listen to someone who is not really a singer but who is putting himself, putting his voice, on a record in a way where it’s not trying to be a singer but just to express some thoughts that are important to me or to them, if that makes sense.

How has living in Paris inspired or changed the way that you compose and create music?

I think that we can all recognize that the French have a very beautiful music that is in many ways different from English music, or Anglo-Saxon music. They have a rich history of quite complex harmony and also the orchestration, particularly in the last century composers like Ravel and Debussy have expanded classical music language. It’s very interesting and I think that a lot of modern popular French artists are part of that tradition. There’s a guy on my record whose name is Alain Chamfort who sings a song called “Vous A L’Oubli” that Muriel wrote the lyrics to. It’s a beautiful song and when I first went to France, I worked with him. We did a concert that was all his songs arranged for two pianos with him singing and playing a piano, and me. It was called Songs For Four Hands (laughs) and that was in fact how I met Muriel cause she was the director of that show. He is a brilliant composer. He writes beautiful, very French kind of music, so I’m very proud that he’s on the record singing the words that Muriel wrote, which is also a superb text that she put to my music.

And that was good cause all the songs really bring relationships that are more than just people working together. You know, the record is in fact a kind of a map of my life in a way cause I’ve worked with all these people in different situations. Alain Chamfort, if I hadn’t gone to work with him, I wouldn’t have met Muriel and a lot of things in my life wouldn’t have happened. And that’s all part of this record.

Is that how you intended or did it just end up that way the more you worked on it?

It wasn’t totally fixed in my mind before I started working on it. It’s developed into that because I only invited the people I had worked with. Initially when I started working on it, I was interested in the idea of duets or duos. I did just musically work with Tall Ulyss, who sings “Save The World,” and he plays the drums on the entire album. For a while we wrote together as a duo, piano and drums. So we worked on all the music like that and that was almost like going back to the days of the Attractions when we used to do two or three tours before we went in the studio to record an album. I think working with Tall Ulyss, whose music is a very powerful rock music, it gave a strength to what I was doing cause my music is generally much more concentrated around the piano and by doing that work as a duo, piano and drums, it brought a new dimension to the music. So it was great. And it was quite important to the whole project.

What is your history with Laurie Anderson?

I have been a huge fan of Laurie’s ever since I bought my first Moog synthesizer and became interested in electronic music. She is a genius storyteller. All her songs are like going on an adventure. She invited me to open for her at a music festival, A Century of Song, in the Ruhr Valley.  We ended the evening singing a duet on Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.” Later, I got to know them both much better, during summer months on Long Island, and we began to meet up whenever Laurie or Lou came through Paris.

What can you tell us about “Vertigo,” the song you do with her on Together?

Actually, we didn’t work on “Vertigo” in ideal conditions. I had rented a house out in the woods near to Laurie’s and we basically recorded into my laptop using headphones. We began working on the track with her electric violin but she didn’t have all her magic boxes. So it’s actually her real playing and the clean direct sound of the instrument. She wanted to overdub many takes and it works because she plays in such a precise way all the takes fit perfectly together and sound like one giant instrument. It was over fairly rapidly because Lou had to get back to New York. I think we spent just an hour on the violin part.

There are some really interesting evocative sounds she created in the early part of the song, and then the violin starts soaring and I just love the extra dimension this work gave to the song. Laurie’s vocal came later, again, a small mixer hooked up to my laptop, this time in Muriel’s house in a forest near Chartres, France. It was a lovely spring day and we took some photos of Laurie in the apple tree blossoms. But in the evening when we recorded, it was a little chilly, so we all wore heavy pullovers, and we lit a fire, and I think if you listen carefully you can hear the wood crackling sometimes. She spoke some of the lines so softly the microphone became a sort of microscope, when we mixed it.

What still excites you about playing music?

I think it’s just always exciting to play music and to be in the situation of people listening. I think also it’s exciting to be a listener and I don’t think we can replace any of these kinds of activities, thankfully, with computers. So at the end of the day, we all still really enjoy being in a room listening to people play music and we all still really enjoy being the people that are playing the music. The two things go together and as long as people are enjoying and listening to concerts and people making music, we can go on doing it (laughs)


What do you think keyboard players and piano players of the future will learn from you?

That’s a fun question. If, in the future they manage to locate a recording of my playing, and after listening to it feel that it’s worth spending time studying, it would surely be some of the more unusual things I’ve managed that would merit such a work. They might wonder how the solo in Elvis’s “Party Girl” was achieved, considering the key the song is in. What was wrong with the keyboard to produce the erratic synthesizer sounds on “Muriel’s Window,” or on Alain Bashung’s album Imprudence, they might discover the duet I did with Marc Ribot’s guitar, rolling billiard balls up and down the strings of the grand piano. Better still, I hope they might listen to several live recordings of the same song, and wonder why I’m hardly ever playing the same thing twice. Perhaps it’s very conceited to answer such a question but given that rock music might be considered the least free music, I mean so square and rigid when you compare it to Jazz or to funk or to classical even, such a prison of a musical form, they might therefore see how much I have tried to escape and have struggled to be free while remaining true to my mission as a rock pianist.

Was it difficult picking up or learning things from other players you have worked with?

The only experience I’ve had of working very closely with a keyboard player was when we worked with Allen Toussaint. We did some stuff with Burt Bacharach but he was never very close physically on stage. I couldn’t see what he was doing and when we made that record, I did quite a lot of the piano. But when we did the Allen Toussaint record, he really took care of most of the piano and I played Hammond organ. But the way I positioned my organ, I was able to be right beside him and I could watch exactly what was going on and it was great. I find it’s difficult to get musicians to share their secrets, you know (laughs). If you know a specific thing you want to know from them and you ask them about it, they’ll show it to you very quickly and it will go by like that and you still know that it’s something you want to know but you didn’t quite get it. So I think that it would probably be the same. I don’t know how you can pass stuff like that on. I’ll have to find a way (laughs)

What was it like working with Allen Toussaint?

The last time I was in New Orleans I wanted to go and record some demos and stuff for this album and I called up Allen Toussaint’s studio. It wasn’t operating anymore but they did open it for me and let me use it. It was incredible. But I had a really weird experience there, because whenever we worked there with Allen, because we had recorded there a couple of times with Elvis, at some point during the recording session these people would come in, like a sort of audience would just appear in the control room; just local people that would come in and listen, which was great. And in the afternoon when I was just playing the piano to record some demos, the same people just kind of started coming in the control room. It was really peculiar (laughs)

steve nieve pub pic with elvis costello 02

What are your plans for the rest of this year?

Well, there’s not much of the year left but I’m very happy to be on this side of the Atlantic for a little while. I want to do a little work like this to help and make people aware of the record. Also, I’m going to go to the West Coast and I’d really like to compose music for films so I’m going to try to find somewhere to live in Los Angeles for a few months and see if I can find a film that needs some music.

Any chance of playing some shows?

We’re just doing a sort of private showcase and I’m going to make an appearance at the Standard Hotel. There’s one in New York and one in LA but at the moment that’s the only plan I’ve got for doing that cause it’s so difficult to imagine to have everyone who was involved with this album to be together at the same time. I don’t think that’s likely to happen. I’d love it to happen, it would be wonderful, so if that happens I will be certain to let you know (laughs)

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